Feature: The 2014 Edible Reading Awards

Hasn’t 2014 been a weird year for Reading? When it started we were all getting over the shock of Jackson’s closing down, and it’s been another year of greetings and partings. Some of the partings have been surprising to say the least: who’d have thought this time last year that we’d say goodbye to Vicar’s, the iconic butcher on West Street? Who could imagine that the last edition of the Reading Post would appear on newsstands? Who could guess that Reading F.C. would sack another manager? (All right, maybe some of the changes were less surprising than others…).

It makes you wonder what 2015 has in store, and what other time-honoured local institutions may be in jeopardy. Will the After Dark still be open this time next year? Will the doughnut kiosk recorded announcement be heard no more? Will Reading Elvis move to Swindon? I can’t imagine anything worse for the town’s morale (or for Reading Elvis – come on, Swindon’s a bit of a hole, right?).

There’s also been a steady succession of restaurant closures: this is the year we said goodbye to Kyklos, Al Tarboush, The Lobster Room, The Eldon Arms, Cappuccina Café, Arepas Caffe and one of Reading’s two branches of Bella Italia. A real mixed bag, that, including a few places that I still really miss (no, not Bella Italia) – and an apt illustration that doing good food isn’t enough to guarantee a restaurant’s survival. It needs to have a USP, to get the rest of the basics right and to find a way of making sure that people know it’s there. A really tricky business, in more ways than one, and I can understand why it must seem like a thankless one too.

Of course that doesn’t stop new establishments taking their place – sometimes literally – and this year we’ve seen plenty of those: My Kitchen, Casa Roma, Chronicles, Coconut, Rynd, Faith Kitchen and Nibsy’s all opened this year. Just this week Artigiano, an on-trend mixture of coffee shop, lunch spot and wine bar, has opened on Broad Street. We’re due to get CAU early next year and there are perennial rumours that Tamp Culture will eventually give up shivering at their coffee cart and take up a more permanent space in town. The sometimes daunting-looking odds, for now at least, don’t discourage people from having a go.

And it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are other signs of a bit of a renaissance in town. The independent retailers – The Tasting House and The Grumpy Goat – that opened late in 2013 seem to be doing rather nicely. Reading now has three supper clubs and the most entrepreneurial, Pop-Up Reading, has done a variety of collaborations, serving its food in cafés and churches. The hyperlocal scene is better than ever, giving Reading folk a much wider range of sources for news, views, reviews and comment – both Alt Reading and rdgnow started this year and do an excellent job – and it will be interesting to see how things change next year with getreading going digital only. There’s even some bloke reviewing roast dinners.

Anyway, like last year ER is taking Christmas off. For me, Christmas is a time to eat lots of food, completely uncritically, without being plagued by those on duty thoughts that always seem to happen when I eat in restaurants. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to read an ER review of my Christmas dinner (and by about halfway through I wouldn’t be in a fit state to write it anyway). But I couldn’t leave you empty handed – and what better way to round off 2014 than with this, the inaugural Edible Reading Awards! So sit back, grab a canapé (not a euphemism – at least I hope not) and read on while I open a bunch of tatty-looking gold envelopes and announce my big winners of the year. Is this microphone on?

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Tuna melt, Shed

A lot of the places that could have won this award have put themselves out of the running by closing: I think at one point Reading had enough top quality sandwiches on offer that you could probably have started a blog just reviewing them. So sadly the magnificent banh mi at Cappuccina Café and the superb pulled pork burger (it’s just a sandwich, really) at the Eldon Arms miss out here. But even if they were still going, I would still have opted for the delights of Shed’s tuna melt. I know I’ve not reviewed them yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t visited on a number of occasions and of all their sandwiches the tuna melt is my runaway favourite. Partly it’s because of the bread – big pillowy ciabatta which you really don’t get anywhere in town. Partly it’s because of all the little extras in there that elevate it above the same thing elsewhere – generous oozy cheese, slivers of red onion, the crunchy sharp surprise of scattered capers. And partly it’s just because it’s a lovely spot to eat, run by lovely people.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam

This was such a difficult category. When looking through the contenders I started to wish that all my favourite restaurants could just join forces and set up the ultimate small plates venue: the wavy lines appeared, like they do in TV dream sequences, and I found myself imagining a single place where you could order the momos from Sapana Home (the only thing there I truly enjoyed), the gorgeous crunchy, hot, spicy Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa and that earthy, decadent truffle ravioli that nearly – but not quite – made Ruchetta worth the money. In the end, though, the winner was the starter that most took me by surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love a salad of warm grilled chicken and vegetables, served in a hot, sweet, sour, sharp dressing that knocked my socks off. I wasn’t expecting to love a salad full stop, in all honesty, but this tasted like nothing else I’ve eaten this year. People have told me since that they went to Art Of Siam specifically to try it. I can’t say I blame them.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

I’m not always right about things first time. When I went to Bhel Puri the first time I quite liked it, quite liked some of the things I’d eaten, quite fancied going back some time. I was quite wrong. Over the months since then I find I keep going back there: it’s a wonderful Technicolor alternative to what, even when it’s done well, can feel like quite a monochrome selection of coffee shops in Reading doing some sandwiches or bagels, some salads and the odd quiche. I always have the chilli paneer – because if I don’t my lunches would all be tinged with regret – and from there I’ve gone on to explore the outer reaches of the menu. I think the service there has got better and friendlier over the year, and every time I walk past I’m delighted to see that it looks pretty busy. Also: vegetarian! Just saying.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Karahi lamb, Bhoj

Honourable mentions have to go to another beautiful way to cook lamb, Kyrenia’s incredible kleftiko – but I feel I’ve enthused about that quite enough quite recently. I also adored Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – made with veal back then and with chicken more recently – tender meat pounded thin, wrapped in salty prosciutto and bathed in a light, delicious sauce rich with wine and sage (and truffled mash, which could turn even a Fray Bentos into a world-beater). And, although they continue to serve it in a soulless glass box with all the atmosphere of the deserted space station in Gravity, La Courbe’s mixed grill – with that unbelievable tabouleh – is still one of the finest main courses in Reading. But the dish I kept dreaming of was Bhoj’s karahi lamb: chunks of lamb, soft to the point of surrender, in the most intense, sticky, savoury sauce. I was back there only a couple of weeks ago, trying it again. I’d like to pretend I was giving it one last check to make sure it was worthy of the accolade, but in truth that decision was made some time ago.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

I’m almost sad to have to pick a winner here because every restaurant in Reading that does good service ought to be applauded. But my experience of most places in Reading that get service right is that they’re still very much about star players: Matt and Alex at Mya Lacarte are absolutely flawless, but everyone else doesn’t quite reach that standard. Marco at Pepe Sale could teach everyone how to do this, but again the rest of the staff can feel a little more hit and miss. Ihor at Kyrenia is as kind and welcoming a front of house as you could hope for, but he’s just one man. Dolce Vita win this award because they are a proper team – whichever of them is looking after me I know I’ll feel exactly that: looked after. They also judge how to serve tables so well – there’s no one size fits all here, so they are more friendly, more formal, more raucous depending on whether they know you, what your group is like and what kind of night you want to have. That Dolce Vita is such a friendly, fun, buzzy place to eat is very much down to that.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Peach and amaretto ice cream, Tutti Frutti

I don’t think I’ve had much luck with desserts this year. The hot school dinner style desserts I adore have been thin on the ground and instead I feel I’ve gamely struggled through underwhelming cakes and prissy little parfaits, delicate but underwhelming stuff. Part of the problem is that if I’m full, or I really didn’t rate the first two courses I’m more likely to pass on dessert (and fewer desserts means fewer runners and riders). It wasn’t all disastrous, though. I was very impressed by the pot au chocolat at the Three Tuns – that chilli and cardamom in there elevated it to something quite magnificent – but it still felt like it wasn’t special enough to win. I also loved the honey and rose kulfi at Chennai Dosa (a place which nearly won a few of these awards) for its fragrant yet refreshing cleverness.

Instead, I’m giving this award to Tutti Frutti for very good reason: when I’m eating on duty in town, and I don’t much fancy a dessert, I’ve come to realise that the test I use in my head when I read that little menu in front of me is this one: is anything I order going to be half as good as Tutti Frutti’s peach and amaretto ice cream? Will it be able to match that smooth creaminess, that hint of fruit, those soft soaked amaretti biscuits with that slightly boozy sweetness? If I know for a fact that the answer will be no, I just get the bill instead. And half the time, if I’m reviewing somewhere in town, because that idea’s in my head I wander across to the station and visit Tutti Frutti instead. It’s a wonderful, quiet, Edward Hopper-esque place late at night – just me, my thoughts, a few workers from the station in their reflective jackets, and that glorious ice cream. Try it sometime, if you get the chance.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Tamp Culture

I am not a massive coffee fan. If you talk about washed Ethiopian whatnots or the size of your roaster I glaze over very quickly. I think it’s great that Reading has so many coffee places, but I still long for some fantastic tea rooms, and places that know the value of a gorgeous smoky lapsang souchong or a floral, elegant Earl Grey.

That said, I love reading Tamp’s updates in my feed – even if I don’t understand all of them. You get a real picture of life outside the Oracle at their little cart – what they sell, what they do, how they work – and it comes across that they really love what they sell, what they do and how they work. The boys at Tamp both remind me a little of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. They’re what Shaggy would be like if he was less interested in constructing sandwiches the size of Thames Tower and more interested in crema (whatever that is). A lot of restaurants just do not get Twitter at all – to see it used regularly with such infectious enthusiasm is an absolute joy.

I should also mention that I particularly enjoyed Tamp’s massive spat with Workhouse Coffee earlier this year – it was Aeropresses at dawn as they bitched about one another the way only coffee geeks can (“your roaster is too small” “well you bought cakes from Costco and frosted them yourself” etc.). It made me chuckle in the middle of a particularly hectic shopping trip to Regents Street.

An honourable mention has to go to the lovely people at Pop-Up Reading. Stop making me hungry, you two.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

When I went to Dolce Vita the first time, I thought the service was great, I really enjoyed the food and I thought their menu was too big. They got a good mark from me, but I suspected in the back of my mind that they’d been fortunate and that if I’d picked different dishes they might have been found out.

Well, that shows what I know. Dolce Vita wins this award because I keep going back and they keep not being found out: I really don’t know how they do it. They also win this award because the range of cooking I’ve had there over this year has been quite something. They do pizza, they do pasta, they do very creditable meat and fish dishes. But they also have a regularly changing set menu which – without any fanfare or showing off – is a darned sight more reliable than London Street Brasserie’s just down the way. So I’ve had big rib-sticking comfort dishes – open ravioli packed with rich game, proper lasagne with beef and pork and chicken livers. But I’ve also had much more restrained, yet equally accomplished stuff – cod cheeks with lentils and a beautiful, fresh salsa verde was a stylish, subtle delight. (They also cook squid beautifully, without a hint of batter or breadcrumbs or mayonnaise in sight).

In many ways I think Dolce Vita is the town centre restaurant I’ve spent a long time looking for, and if I want to eat in town but can’t decide where it often gets the nod. I’ve had quick suppers here and long, drawn out dinners, conspiratorial lunches with friends and big loud celebrations with lots of people. The service is brilliant and they even have a bottle of Averna behind the bar for when you want the evening to last just that little bit longer. Of course, it’s not perfect – no restaurant is – but that’s probably for the best, because if I found the perfect restaurant I wouldn’t write a blog anymore and if you did you’d stop reading mine. But for 2014, it’s as close as I’ve got.

Here’s to continuing that search in 2015 – and until then, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Advertisements

Round-up: One year of Edible Reading

A slightly different round-up this week; I’m not going to do the usual summary of past reviews. I’m not doing restaurant news this week either, because there isn’t much news: the places which are due to open (CAU, Rynd) are still due to open and nowhere has closed that I know of, unless you’re devastated that Reading has lost one of its two Bella Italias (and if you are, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this). We do have a gluten free café opening on Cross Street, so there’s that I suppose, but that’s all. Instead, it’s a chance to round up a year in the life of Reading’s restaurant scene, because Edible Reading is one year old.

There have definitely been changes in the last year. As always, we’ve seen a steady churn of restaurants opening and closing: we’ve said goodbye to some, like Kyklos and the Lobster Room, and hello to others, like La Courbe and Coconut. I was sad about Kyklos – it never lived up to its potential, but some of the dishes were good and the service was excellent, and it would have been lovely to be able to eat Greek food (a really underrated cuisine) in the centre of town. The new boys are also a mixed bag – La Courbe does brilliant food but never quite feels like a restaurant, and Coconut isn’t quite distinctive enough to offer something different in a town with plenty of options already.

The more interesting arrivals have been in Reading’s cafés: with My Kitchen and Lincoln Coffee opening in the centre there have never been more alternatives to the hegemony of Coffee Corner. If you add in the other lunch possibilities, like Bhel Puri (another welcome opening in the last year), and the other contributors to Reading’s coffee scene (those lovely chaps at Tamp Culture), this is an area where things definitely feel like they’re changing for the better. I’m just sorry that Cappuccina Café, with its delicious banh mi and pasteis de nata, didn’t stay the course too.

There’s more to food culture than restaurants, and this too is one of the more promising signs over the last twelve months. Reading now has a top-notch wine merchant in the shape of the Tasting House, and The Grumpy Goat offers a mind-boggling range of beers and many of the area’s delicious cheeses. The recent spate of supper clubs in the area also shows that food has never been as important to Reading as it is today, and although we still don’t have enough street food at least we have the artisan market on Fridays, even if the opening hours are plain silly. It’s a start, anyway.

Anyway, I was wondering how else to best round up the year, and then I realised: I am totally out of step with the zeitgeist. Journalism these days is all about lists – you only have to read a Buzzfeed link to figure that out – and I haven’t done a single list all year! What was I thinking? So, without further ado, here’s how I’d like to sum up a year of Edible Reading, with a list. Reviewing restaurants is all about reviewing meals, evenings, experiences – and sometimes that misses the point that there can be great dishes tucked away even in middling meals. So to redress the balance, here for your delectation, in sort-of-alphabetical order, is a list of the ten best things I’ve eaten in the last year while reviewing restaurants for the blog. Zeitgeist here I come!

1. Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam. This salad is all about contrast (and not at all about leaves and lettuce). The chicken is perfectly soft and cooked and the vegetables seem to be purely there for texture as nothing, but nothing, stands up to the flavour of the dressing. It has tons of heat – enough chilli to require a glass of milk or at least a handkerchief – but also has the tartness of fresh limes to create a liquor in the bottom of the dish that’s worth spooning up because it is so fab. The flavour is super intense and salty and is enough to render even me speechless (or that might just be the chilli).

2. Lamb karahi, Bhoj. The little silver bowls of meat at Bhoj remind me of spice bowls in an eastern market which seems very apt for this dish. The lamb (and “juicy baby lamb” at that) has been cooked for so long that it falls apart into shreds at the lightest touch of a fork and the sauce is much drier than the usual British-Indian chunks-of-meat-in-an-orange-sauce affair. Here, it’s more a sticky, rich, spiced gravy with the odd cardamom pod for accidental-eating fun. Order one for yourself because you won’t want to share. I did, and I still regret it now.

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House. I could never turn vegetarian – it’s just not in my nature – but this dish at Reading’s only (to my knowledge) vegetarian restaurant is so good that adding bacon wouldn’t improve it. High praise indeed! The small cubes of paneer are marinated in chilli and fried. That’s it. But, my goodness, they’re so good! The layer of lettuce underneath is pointless and if you accidentally eat a green chilli thinking it’s a green bean (I mean, who would make such a mistake? erm…) you realise where all the heat comes from. Not so hot that it burns and tingles but enough to make every sticky cube worth fighting over.

4. Bread and butter, Côte.
Bread. Such a simple thing, right? But at how many places in Reading can you get truly decent bread? A two quid basket of bread at Côte is six diagonal slices of what is arguably the best bread in Reading – crispy and slightly chewy on the outside, fluffy and malty on the inside. It’s served with a little pot of room temperature salted butter which melts as it goes onto the warm bread. If you’re canny it’s worth splitting each finger of bread into two to make the most of the surface area. It’s a perfect amuse bouche before getting down to the serious business of ordering (and when you do, Côte’s tuna niçoise also came close to making this list – just saying).

5. Chips and mayonnaise, The Eldon Arms.
A bowl of chips is another simple pleasure that’s often done terribly. Whilst the French fry has its place, proper chips should always be thick cut. In the Eldon the chips were served without pomp, without daft toppings or being put into a pointless gimmicky tiny frying basket: not affected, just bloody delicious. Thick cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside. Simple. Then served with a bowl of proper (there’s that word again) home made mayonnaise which had enough garlic in it to make enemies the next day but with no fanfare to announce its arrival because, in the chef’s eyes, it was just mayonnaise. It saddens me greatly that the Eldon is closed, and the burgers got all the plaudits but strangely it’s the chips I miss most.

6. Chicken lahsooni tikka, House Of Flavours.
Chicken tikka is one of those dishes that has entered the British lexicon, a shorthand for Indian food that so often gets abused and made into something cheap. This, though, is nothing like the chicken tikka flavour you’d get in a Pot Noodle (and, regrettably, I know this for a fact because I had one recently – never again). The chicken, marinated in spice and yoghurt, is as soft as butter, as if it’s only just been cooked through, no more. The spices are rich and smooth and best of all, in my opinion, there’s lots of garlic too. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top to give it a bit of zing and you have, I reckon, about as perfect as starter as can be.

7. Mixed grill, La Courbe. What’s not to like about a restaurant that can serve up meat in this many different ways and for them all to be really good? The lamb kofte is soft and herby, rather than hot. The chicken is marinated in ginger and cooked so the inside is soft but the outside is caramelised. The grilled lamb comes flavoured with cinnamon to give a slightly sweet taste and cooked so it’s just pink but still soft. The dollop of houmous on the side was surprisingly average, but the superb tabbouleh also deserves special mention: fresh, clean and green.

8. Tuna tartare, Malmaison. Like I said, even bad meals can contain brilliant dishes and despite the gloomy surroundings this dish shone brightly in the Malmaison firmament (only partly because of the glass plate they served it on). The tuna was super fresh and went perfectly with the avocado, truly ripe with that delicious buttery taste. The wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger on the side were perfect dotted onto a forkful of tuna and avocado, and the sesame dressing drizzled round the edge had a slight sticky sweetness which made it worth mopping up. If only the rest of the restaurant had lived up to the food.

9. Crab ravioli, Pepe Sale. As the first restaurant to get the ER treatment it pleases me greatly that Pepe Sale makes it onto this list. The crab ravioli is on the specials menu so often that it should become a standard, especially as it’s so good. The ravioli is perfectly cooked, just al dente, and made fresh that day on the marble counter just inside the door. The fluffy crab inside is more generous than it needs to be (but then that’s probably how Pepe Sale has maintained a loyal following for the past fifteen years). The tomato and cream sauce is rich but not overwhelming so a bowlful feels like a treat not an overindulgence. A year on, one of the first dishes I reviewed is still one of the very best.

10. Fried chicken, rice and peas, Perry’s. Perry’s, despite its size, is one of the more intimidating places I’ve eaten since I started ER. I’m glad I went in, though, because it does food that I would struggle to get anywhere else. The chicken is seasoned, coated in flour and fried and then served with a generous helping of rice and peas. Calling it rice and peas is one hell of an understatement, mind. This a side dish on the scale of your mum’s best stew – rice and peas cooked in stock, herbs and spices that are too numerous for me to identify. There’s plenty of chilli in there but the whole flavour is more sophisticated than plain old chilli suggests. Even if it wasn’t an amazing dish in its own right, I’d want it on this list because, more than anything, it symbolises food I would never have eaten if I hadn’t started this blog.

Getting that list down to just ten dishes was no mean feat – no room, sadly, for the ribs at Blue’s Smokehouse, the churros at Tampopo, the truffle ravioli at Ruchetta and countless others. It just goes to show how much good food is out there in and around Reading if you know where to look – and sometimes even if you don’t – despite our reputation as a clone town.

When I started Edible Reading I did wonder if there was enough here to keep me going. A whole year of weekly reviews, the majority of them in central Reading, suggests that I may have been worrying unduly. Without a doubt, the best thing about the last year has been the involvement from everyone who reads the blog – commenting, passing on reviews, Retweeting and getting involved with the conversations. And even now, every time someone tells me they’ve tried and loved a restaurant after reading an Edible Reading review it absolutely makes my day. So please don’t forget to request places you’d like to see reviewed – and if you think I’m missing that one great dish that you order time and time again, add your two pence in the comments box.

Art of Siam

N.B. Art Of Siam closed in December 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I love eating out, really I do, but sometimes even I get a little jaded. The constant search for new places occasionally takes its toll, and from time to time Reading can feel like Indian after Italian after chain after chain. So for this week’s review I looked at the lovingly prepared, generously suggested list of dining options and I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to pick. The rain was bucketing down on and off and the thought of toddling over to Caversham or venturing out into the Berkshire countryside just didn’t appeal. What to do?

So I chose Art of Siam probably for all the wrong reasons; because it was conveniently central and because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d paid it a visit. I did make myself a promise this time, though: no starter platter, no pad Thai, no dishes that I’ve reviewed before in other places. I’m not always the most imaginative diner in a Thai restaurant, something even I know. This time, I told myself, it’s all going to be different. Besides, I imagine that any Thai restaurant worth its fish sauce will be able to rustle up a those dishes with the chef’s hands Thai’d (I know, I’m sorry) so it probably isn’t the best way to judge the kitchen.

On entering the almost empty restaurant on a rainy mid-week night I had conflicting feelings of comfort and trepidation. The dining room is the same as I remember from my first visit what must be ten years ago – beautiful wood panelling lining the walls, a scattering of Buddhas and a gorgeous wooden lattice covering the ceiling. Even the shuttered windows looking down on King’s Walk are attractive. Only a few things – like the rickety rattan chairs, several of them taped or repaired – make the room look a little tired. Apart from that, the effect is like stepping into a movie set; at once splendid and a tiny bit contrived. The tables are all set with branded Art of Siam plates (and wineglasses), elaborately folded cloth napkins and forks and spoons. It really is a gorgeous place to eat dinner – marred only if you get one of the seats overlooking the somewhat municipal corridor leading to the kitchen.

Service was quick, enthusiastic and a little, well, amateurish. In my quest to order something different for once I wanted plenty of advice only to find that the waitress didn’t really know her way around the menu. When I asked what was in some of the dishes, to help me choose, she suggested that one chicken dish contained onions and peppers, whereas another contained peppers and onions. Further questioning gave the impression that all the dishes were pretty much the same, in levels of vagueness if nothing else. When pressed she confessed that she had been working there for less than a week and so went off to ask the kitchen more about the dishes but even then, the answers didn’t make anything clearer.

Later on, what purported to be our mains turned up – except they bore no relation to what we had actually ordered. We looked at them slightly baffled for a minute or so and the waitress then swooped and carried them off to another table (which was especially galling as they looked delicious). The whole experience was friendly and pleasant but utterly chaotic, which left me thinking that the whole meal was going to be something of a lottery.

My sinking feeling didn’t last long, anyway, because – probably through luck more than judgment – the starters were very good indeed. The more conventional of them, toong tong, were essentially big fat wontons filled with minced chicken and prawn. So far, so conventional, but the filling was absolutely top notch. None of that disturbingly bouncy, gelatinous pinkness I’ve had at many other restaurants – instead, the filling was beautiful, dense and firm. The plum sauce they came with felt like an anonymous sweet dipping sauce, but it still added something to the dish (I was expecting plum sauce as you’d get in Chinese restaurants, probably wrongly, so was a tad disappointed). No starter in a Thai restaurant would be complete without a bit of vegetable sculpture so of course this was also accompanied with a flower made out of carrot. (I’ve never been hungry enough to eat one of these. Not yet, anyway.)

Thai

The standout dish though – not just among the starters but in the whole meal – was yum gai yang, or chicken salad. I’ve never had Thai salad before because, well, it’s salad, but this was in a different league. It was salad in the sense that it wasn’t served with a thick hot sauce, not in the sense of lettuce and tomato and celery. Instead I got slices of warm, freshly grilled chicken dressed with lemongrass, galangal, chilli and lime juice. The bits and bobs of vegetables it came with were merely for texture because it was all about the amazing dressing which was the perfect balance of hot and sour – just the right side of bearable heat and just the right side of enjoyable sharpness.

Maybe it’s just my lack of imagination in Thai restaurants, in fact I’m sure it is, but I’ve not had anything like this before. It was absolutely stunning – a dish I keep thinking about, remembering and wanting to have again, even though it made my lips ever so slightly numb, made my tongue blaze and made me order a cooling glass of milk. It was a funfair ride of a dish – I was shaken at the end but a little bit of me, in the back of my mind, was shouting “Again! Again!”

Thai2

Mains could never live up to that, but to their credit they weren’t far off. Pla chu chi, lightly battered white fish in a red curry sauce, was one of the biggest dishes I’ve been served in a long time. The sauce was a good one, although a little less generous than I’d have liked – especially after such a fiery starter – so not much to tip onto the rice (I’ve long thought the best bit of most Thai meals is that mixture of sauce and rice you end up with towards the end of the meal). In amongst the fish were slices of chilli big enough to kill a small child plus a dollop of coconut milk on top – just in case you hadn’t realised this was a rich and unhealthy dish.

Thai3

Gai phad bai kraprao, despite the long name, was probably the simplest dish I had: chicken stir fried with fresh chilli and Thai basil (and onions and peppers, not that that marked it out from the other chicken dishes on the menu by the sounds of it). Even so it was lovely with everything done just right: thin, tender slivers of chicken, soft sweet onions and a sauce which was more interesting than I was expecting, savoury and salty with a note almost of something like aniseed. Again, it was light on the sauce – I admire them for not drowning their main courses with gloopy sauce but it did leave me feeling my coconut rice (pleasant but unremarkable) was a tad underdressed.

The only real misfire was the other side dish; fried noodles turned out to be wide, flat, almost completely undressed, clumpy noodles which transformed into rubber bands within minutes of being brought to the table. I’m still not convinced that they really were fried, because they felt more like they’d been steamed into a state of abject surrender, but the waitress assured me they were. I pretty much left them, although I had quite enough food so it wasn’t a tragedy (the waitress offered to take them back to the kitchen and get them to re-fry them so I could take them home, which is very sweet but does rather miss the point).

The wine served here is allegedly exactly the same as in Thai Corner which makes me wonder if Monsoon Valley has managed to secure the only shipping containers that make it safely across to the UK. I say allegedly as it wasn’t the smooth easy drinking red I am used to from Monsoon Valley but after a couple of chilli-soaked slices of chicken it hardly mattered. It was just enough to take the edge off without getting silly on a school night. The total bill for two starters, two mains, two side dishes, two glasses of wine (and one absolutely indispensable glass of milk) was forty-three pounds excluding service – a steal for the quality of food and the boundless flavours on offer.

If I didn’t review restaurants, and I’d been going out that rainy midweek night, I’d have gone somewhere tried and tested. I’d have had something I often order and I’m sure I’d have liked it well enough. And some nights that’s what you want, something comfortable and reliable. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that – for all its Italians and Indians and chains – Reading’s restaurants still have the capacity to surprise and that by going somewhere you’d taken for granted and forgotten all about, by taking a chance on something you wouldn’t normally order in a million years, you can still be ambushed by a wonderful meal. I hope you try it some time, if not in Art Of Siam then somewhere else. Either way, make the most of this because heaven knows, you won’t find me recommending the salad very often.

Art of Siam – 7.7
2A/3A The Walk, King Street, RG1 2HG
01189 512600

http://www.artofsiamuk.com/reading/aboutus.php